Google announced today that it will offer free calls to Haiti through Google Voice to help connect Haitians with their families in other locations. The company’s announcement follows on the heels of Skype’s announcement yesterday that it would be emailing vouchers for $2 of Skype credit to its users in Haiti.

However, a United Nations Foundation worker told us this afternoon that the communication systems in Haiti were essentially unusable. It appears that the two companies have just joined the category of “awfully nice, generous, but somewhat impractical” ideas.

Now this isn’t to say that Google is completely amiss on the subject of helping Haiti. The company has also set up a page to respond to the crisis in a number of ways, and has pledged to donate $1 million to relief organizations. But let’s take a look at what’s going on.

Skype’s blog post on the subject starts off by pointing out that “many people in Haiti are without landline or cell phone coverage since the earthquake.” If this is true, the same must be said for the Internet in Haiti.

Mozilla’s “Blog of Metrics” shared some statistics yesterday about Firefox usage in the country and the numbers don’t say good things for the state of the communications infrastructure.

The data is based on a once-daily ping from Firefox users in Haiti and is broken down on an hour-by-hour basis. The pings stopped at the time of the earthquake.

While both moves seem well-intentioned, we can only wonder how effective they might be.There are some reports of people using Skype to connect with family there, but from what we’ve seen of the satellite imagery on Google, this must be the exception more than the rule.

Update: The Word from the Ground

We spoke with Ingrid Madden from the U.N. Foundation this afternoon and she told us that communication systems in Haiti were essentially unusable.

“The only ones on our staff who have been able to make phone calls have satellite phones,” she said. “Even electricity is really hard to come by.”

She also told us that they have teams on the ground trying to set up satellite communications systems.

A first-hand account from an aid worker with the U.N. World Food Program in Haiti describes the technical difficulties they are facing in the region:

Some minutes later, we learned that Port-au-Prince was badly hit by an earthquake. We tried to contact the WFP country office by FoodSat phone, mobile phone and landlines without any success. Finally we got in touch with the HF radio on Mhz.

The account goes on to say that landline communications in the Port-au-Prince area are also completely down. Luckily, the worker found a satellite leftover from Hurricane Ike in 2008 in the back of a cybercafe.

For more information on how to help, the U.N. Foundation has issued a call for donations or you can visit their page directly.

Photo by WFP/ICT.

mike melanson